Chair Yoga for Seniors
Health Benefits of Yoga for Seniors
For many people over fifty, yoga is an ideal form of gentle, low-impact exercise that requires little equipment and can be done almost anywhere. Joining a yoga class at the local community centre, YMCA or yoga studio will teach you the basics of complete breathing, simple physical stretches or asanas, guided relaxation, and meditation.
Even by practicing yoga as little as once a week for one hour, after six weeks students start noticing a difference in their bodies. Yoga helps stretch and strengthen all the major muscles, increases range of motion at the joints, and eases back pain. The gentle exercise and breath practices tone and massage the inner organs, reducing constipation, boosting immunity, and maximizing organ health. Quiet, mindful transitions from one yoga posture to the next as well as the guided relaxation that is part of every yoga class improve the quality of sleep. At the end of yoga class, seniors feel calm, relaxed, buoyant, and refreshed.
Pranayama Breathing Exercise for Seniors
Most yoga classes start with centering and guided breathing. Sit on the chair, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed or half-closed, hands resting comfortably on the thighs, palms up or down as you wish, index finger lightly touching thumb in the hand position or mudra called jnana mudra, or wisdom gesture. This hand position returns energy into the body and allows us to move into a state of inner stillness. Now take three deep inhales. Exhale and empty your lungs. Inhale into your belly, your ribs, your collar bones. Exhale a long slow breath, fully emptying the lungs. Notice how you can extend the out breath longer than the in breath. Now do it again. Inhale into your belly, your ribs, our collar bones. Exhale completely. Once more, inhale into your belly, your ribs, your collar bones. Exhale. Now breathe naturally, watching your breath. Without changing it in any way, just watch it and notice how the body breathes. Notice the four parts of the breath, the full deep inhalation, the short pause at the top of the breath with the lungs full, the long slow exhalation, and the slightly longer pause at the end of the out breath, when the whole body is still and relaxed, when there is no hunger for air, no need to move any part, just a moment of utter satisfaction and stillness and awareness. Then the moment changes again as the hunger for air arises and another breath begins.
In my classes and on my DVD Gentle Yoga for Beginners and Seniors I teach many kinds of yogic breathing, for pranayama is the most important part of the practice, especially for older adults. Yoga teaches that the breath is the link between life energy, or prana, the body, and the mind. Learning to watch and control the breath leads to the deeper practices of yoga and meditation, which are linked. Moreover, many seniors have physical wear and tear of joints, medical conditions, or chronic pain that limits their ability to do the more physically challenging parts of yoga, but nevertheless, easier variations of the classical key postures are within reach.
Chair Stretching Exercises for Seniors
Here is a short flow of gentle exercises you can do while seated in or supported by a chair. You can do them as a linked flow, first to one side and then to the other to stretch both sides of the body equally. Hold each position for three to five full breaths, relaxing into the position deeper each time you exhale. If you feel pain in any of the positions, come out at once, and omit that posture or try a gentler variation.
As you inhale, reach forward and up, then as you exhale, lean to the right towards the corner where the ceiling meets the wall. Feel the side stretch down the left ribs and waist.
Release Seated Willow as you exhale, and bring the back of the right hand to the outside of the left thigh. Bring the left hand to the seat or the leg of the chair, and twist back gently to the left, leading the twist with the left shoulder.
Seated Forward Fold
Release Seated Twist on the exhale, and return to the centre. bring your hands to your thighs, and as you exhale, fold forward as far as is comfortable for you, sliding the hands down the shins to the ankles, the feet or the floor between your feet. Relax your head forward. If you have high blood pressure, keep the head above the heart and the elbows on the knees.
After you come up from Forward Fold, do the Seated Willow and Seated Twist sequence to the other side.
Supported Standing Poses with a Chair
Standing Tree: Bring the weight into the right foot, and rest the left toes on the floor. Balance and breathe. Keep the hips level and the standing leg very active to strengthen the muscles of the foot and ankle. If you feel unsafe on one leg, practice it in a corner with a wall just behind each shoulder, or practice with a chair in front of you and your hands resting lightly on the back of the chair. Practice both sides.
Standing Egyptian: As you exhale, step the right foot back about a leg's length, and turn the right foot out about forty-five degrees. Press both feet into the ground and apart, rest the hands on the seat of the chair or on the kitchen counter, and as you exhale pull the hips back and reach the hands forward. Feel stretch through the spine, the sides, and down the back of the front thigh. Switch legs and practice both sides.
Standing Downward Facing Dog: As you exhale, walk both legs back about a leg's length with the hands resting on the seat of the chair or on the kitchen counter. Hips should be a little further back than the heels, and the knees can bend as much as you need to to feel the stretch through the back of the legs, the buttocks and the waist. Weight is even on both feet, and not much weight is in the hands. If there is pain in the lower back in this position, bend the knees, and use the abdominal muscles to pull the hips away from the ribs. If you have high blood pressure, or if you feel sick or dizzy in the position shown, use a gentler variation with the hands on the wall or on a counter higher than the hips. People with high blood pressure are recommended to keep the head above the heart. Hold the position and breathe.
Standing Cat (not illustrated): This is a variation of a posture that is usually done on the hands and knees on the floor, but since many seniors have hip, knee, ankle and wrist concerns, many find the classical variation challenging. Here is a simpler way to do it that still keeps the first benefit of massaging the inner organs as you first squeeze and then stretch the abdomen, and the second benefit of fully articulating the 26 movable vertebrae in the spine, keeping the spine flexible.
Stand with both hands flat on the seat of the chair and the feet about half a leg's length back from the edge of the chair, feet parallel, and the weight even on both hands and both feet. As you exhale, tuck the tailbone under, press the mid back up, press the belly up, and tuck the chin to the chest, arching the spine up like an angry cat. As you inhale, lift the tail bone, press the mid back down, press the belly down, lift the head, and look up, arching the spine the opposite way. Continue rocking the spine back and forth gently in this manner for a few cycles, co-ordinating the physical movement with the breath. Keep the teeth unclenched, the shoulders relaxed, and focus on long, slow breaths.
Standing Triangle: As you exhale, step the right foot back about half a leg's length and turn the right toes out about forty-five degrees. Hips and shoulders face forward so you feel the stretch through the side, without folding forward at the waist. Right hand can stay on the hip, or lift above the right shoulder to deepen the stretch. Left hand can hold the chair lightly to help you balance. Weight stays even in both feet as you press the feet down and apart to activate the insides of the legs and the ankles. Hold the position and breathe. Practice both sides.
Standing Forward Fold: Relax forward fully as if your spine is a stream of water pouring out of your pelvis. Most beginners need to support the hands on the thighs, shins, ankles or on a chair and cannot go as deep as the picture shows. Find the variation that feels good for you, and practice it every day if you can, to stretch the back of the legs, the buttocks and the upper back and shoulders.
This flow can be practiced complete in itself, or as an opening flow before including a few exercises on the floor.
A Gentle Flow on the Floor to Stretch and Strengthen the Back
Unless you have back injuries or the following gentle back bend causes pain, I recommend:
As you inhale, lift up into the position with the back and abdominal muscles. As you exhale, relax to the floor again. After some practice and as the back and core muscles strengthen, go into the pose and hold it for three to five breaths.
Position for Guided Relaxation
I also recommend relaxing for 3 to 5 minutes in:
Legs Up the Wall
If it is hard to get into this position, try putting your feet up on the edge of your bed, your couch or a chair, then relax in the position with your eyes closed and breathe. You can keep the back flat if you prefer, or If it feels good, try lifting your hips above your heart with a rolled blanket, cushion or bolster under the flat part of your sacrum. This allows the organs to drain.
Yoga Meditation for Seniors
At the end of your yoga practice, it is important to allow 7 to 12 minutes for final relaxation or meditation. Although this can be done while sitting in the chair as we started the practice, ideally, final relaxation should be done lying on your back on the floor or on the bed if getting up and down to the floor is too challenging. This position is called Savasana, or Relaxation Position. It is a meditation posture when done mindfully.
- Lie on your back, legs apart,feet apart, arms apart from your body with the palm facing up, to allow the shoulders to relax. If it causes tension in your shoulders to face the palms up, try rolling a blanket or towel or placing a cushion under the back of your lower arms for support.
- Now scan through your body with your inner awareness and consciously relax each part. It may help you to record yourself saying the relaxation cues, or work with my DVD with an guided deep relaxation for about fifteen minutes that will leave you feeling refreshed and recharged.
- Relax your feet. Feel your toes, your arches, your ankles relaxed and warm. picture them dissolving into the floor.
- Relax your legs, Relax your calves, your knees, your thighs, your hips. Allow your entire lower body to soften and relax. Picture it dissolving into the earth.
- Feel the wave of relaxation moving up your spine. Relax your lower back, relax your belly, relax your mid back, relax your chest, relax your upper back, your shoulders, your neck.
- Relax your inner organs. Relax your intestines. Picture them sinking back toward your spine. Relax your stomach, your liver, your kidneys, your heart, your lungs.
- Relax all your inner organs. Feel your breath like golden light bathing all the cells of the organs with deep relaxation and allowing them to drift back toward your spine.
- Unclench your teeth, relax your cheeks and lips, relax your eyes, relax your ears, relax your temples.
- Gently lift and separate your eyebrows. Relax your forehead, relax your scalp,relax your mind.
- Keep breathing, relax, keep watching, relax, move into inner stillness.
When you feel ready, with no hurry, bring your awareness back into your body, roll to your side if you are lying on the floor, or open your eyes if you are sitting in the chair. Then come into a sitting position and sit with quiet awareness for a few minutes, experiencing the stillness you feel after yoga practice.
Relaxation, Managing Stress and Improving Sleep
The practice of yoga teaches us to start living life with awareness, watching the breath, watching the body, watching the emotions and the mind. The practice is most helpful when we start to take it off the mat and into our daily lives. When we feel angry or afraid, or get caught up in the racing mind worrying about stuff that keeps us awake at night, we can return to the breath practices or the guided relaxation cues to help us calm down and step away from the anger or worry. Yoga is an old practice, and people have continued to practice it for thousands of years because it helps us sleep restfully, manage stress, and live well.